LARGO, Md. — In Yvette Hansberry’s home, a small, soft teddy bear sits on the mantel above the fireplace. Its beady eyes survey the small family room; its face always smiles.The bear is in a prime location because it contains the remains of the worst day of her life.
A week before that fateful day, Hansberry had been six months pregnant. She had begun leaking a clear-looking fluid — enough for her to wear a pad when she went to work. Her OB-GYN, Dr. Charles Akoda, examined her, but dismissed her concerns, she said, pronouncing her “fine,” just as he had when she experienced light bleeding three months into her term.
Still, Hansberry knew something was not right. “I had never been six months pregnant before, but I know you’re not supposed to be leaking any fluid,” she said.
She returned to the clinic, and this time was seen by the other OB-GYN at the practice. Almost as soon as she was on the examination table, he told her she was in labor. She had been, by that point, for at least six days; the membranes from her amniotic sac were hanging down through her cervix and into her vaginal canal.
Hansberry was rushed to a hospital in an ambulance. Five hours later, her daughter arrived — three months early — and could not be saved.
Later, Hansberry would learn that her doctor’s name was not Dr. Charles Akoda. She would learn that his legal name was Oluwafemi Charles Igberase. And she would learn that he had used a fake Social Security card to obtain a medical license and advance his medical career.
For almost four years, he had performed exams on women, read sonograms, made birth plans, and delivered babies in Maryland’s Prince George’s County under a medical license not in his legal name. He has said he attended medical school before completing his residency but has provided no verifiable evidence of his training.
In late 2016, “Akoda,” as he was widely known, pled guilty to a federal fraud charge. He served six months in prison.
For Hansberry and the other women under his care, though, the revelation of the fraud has served as a shattering breach of trust, one that has changed the way they approach their medical care and their everyday lives, and has made them question institutions they expected to do them no harm.
Many had struggled with their treatment under Akoda’s care — they said his bedside manner was brusque and that he was quick to dismiss their own concerns about their health. In that way, their experience was not unlike that of legions of women who say they have their suffering minimized by doctors or their health problems overlooked.
But, even so, they had clung to at least one truth: They were in trusted hands.
Akoda declined to be interviewed at length for this story, citing fears of “further legal exposures.” He answered some brief questions in a series of text messages, and acknowledged using fraudulent credentials. But he insisted he is a “fully and properly trained physician.”
“I made some poor judgement which I know I’ll pay for for the rest of my life,” he said.
More than 200 of his former patients, including Hansberry, have joined a class-action suit against Dimensions Health Corp., which now operates the hospital where they were treated. The suit claims that the hospital was negligent in its hiring and credentialing of the man they knew as Akoda — and that they had suffered “humiliation, shame, mortification and other injuries” under his care.
The suit charges that he conducted unplanned emergency cesarean section surgeries that were “not medically necessary” and that, because his patients did not know his real identity, they were incapable of providing authorization or consent for any medical procedures. Dimensions Health Corp. declined to provide comment for this story.
Despite their discomfort with Akoda, many of the women said they were too embarrassed about the awkward or sometimes painful procedures they had endured to raise concerns with anyone in authority. Even now, as they recalled their interactions with Akoda, their discovery of his fraud, and their life since, they all have the same lingering question: How on earth could this have happened?
Hansberry, who has a trace of a Southern accent and eyes that hold back her tears, doesn’t have an answer.
“This,” she said, “is gonna be with me forever and ever.”
“I made some poor judgement which I know I’ll pay for for the rest of my life.”
Oluwafemi Charles Igberase
It is hard to know the exact details of Akoda’s life. Court documents list 11 possible pseudonyms. It is believed he was born as Oluwafemi Charles Igberase in Nigeria.
He is around 5’10” with an athletic build and dark brown skin. His hair is shaved and his head is smooth. He wears brown glasses that sit on his slightly protruding ears.
There are other known facts, known either because they appear in federal court documents or were provided during testimony under oath.
In October 1991, around age 29, Akoda entered the United States on a nonimmigrant visa. Over the next six years, he applied for and obtained fraudulent Social Security numbers using different names and different permanent addresses. He then used those fraudulent identities to try to and obtain certifications from the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, which licenses international medical school graduates before they can pursue graduate medical education in the United States.
On multiple occasions, he failed these basic exams for certification. But he tried again and, in 1993 and 1994, received separate certifications. Two of those certifications were revoked after authorities noticed he had used different names and dates in his applications. (Applicants are not allowed to take these exams multiple times.) In 1998, however, he received a certification from the commission again.
He used it to apply to a residency program in New Jersey, where he was admitted. Officials later noticed he had used a false birth date and Social Security number and suspended him.
Still, using fraudulent credentials, Akoda applied to Howard University in Washington, D.C., for a residency in gynecology and obstetrics. He was admitted and completed his residency at Prince George’s Hospital Center. At Prince George’s, Akoda met Dr. Abdul G. Chaudry, who has had operating privileges there since 1980. Chaudry eventually hired Akoda — who obtained a medical license from the Maryland Board of Physicians in September 2011 — to join his clinic.
In the clinic, most of Akoda’s patients saw him by happenstance. Because both he and Chaudry worked in obstetrics, they were often on call at the nearby hospital, delivering babies and dealing with maternity ward patients. When Chaudry was not at the clinic, his patients would be seen by Akoda, even if they had barely known of his existence beforehand.
Of the six women who spoke to STAT, all said they had seen Akoda for the first time when he walked into their room, while they were expecting to see Chaudry.
They were not always pleased. One patient, Sylvia Nkeng, whose second child was delivered by Akoda, said most women at the clinic wanted to be seen by Chaudry. In her case, because she was working full time, while also taking classes, her schedule wasn’t flexible enough to allow her to be selective about which doctor she saw.
“All of that put me in a tight corner, where I couldn’t really do much about it,” she said.
Other women found themselves in similar circumstances. Prince George’s is a majority-black county, with a large immigrant population and limited health care options, especially for women’s health.
Hansberry said she began visiting Chaudry’s clinic because her mother had been seeing him for years. When she showed up in 2014 for her well-woman’s exam, Akoda saw her — and he was the one to tell her she was pregnant. She was 35 at the time and, though it was an accidental pregnancy, she was happy to hear the news.
Over the coming weeks, she was seen by both Chaudry and Akoda, but the latter more often. During those appointments, she said, she began to feel like something was off — that Akoda’s care was different than what she was used to experiencing.
“I know what a [vaginal] exam is supposed to feel like,” she recalled. “I’ve been doing it for a long time. It was just different … and at the time I didn’t pinpoint what it was.”
In interviews, women said they were “embarrassed” over the way Akoda treated them, but never considered telling others, not even their husbands.
Tina Young, whose child was delivered by Akoda, recalled that she had never seen Akoda before he walked into her delivery room at Prince George’s Hospital. At the time, she said, she wasn’t fully dilated, but Akoda put her feet in the stirrups and had her push. He reached his hand inside of her without asking, she said, and stretched her cervix more.
“He was grabbing my child from my womb,” she recalled. “It was excruciating.”
Young, who had given birth three other times, said she did not experience any complications with her previous births. But she didn’t feel normal for six months after the delivery Akoda performed, and she still has questions. She thinks about her experience at least once a week — especially when she looks at her daughter, now 2 years old.
In November 2016, when Akoda pled guilty, local news reports in Washington carried the story.
One of his patients heard his name on the radio while driving home; she at first assumed she must have misheard. Another heard about it from a friend at her baby’s christening. One woman dropped a cereal bowl when she turned around and saw his face on television.
Hansberry, a paraprofessional for D.C. Public Schools, was at work when she got a call from her mother with the news. She stepped into a closet and wept.
For Nkeng, the news was also traumatic. She was watching daytime television when Akoda’s picture appeared on her screen.
An immigrant from Cameroon, Nkeng speaks hesitantly, but as she recalled her experience with Akoda, her voice was saturated with anger. She was never given a detailed birth plan, she said, and when she raised concerns about cramping or just how big she had become, Akoda dismissed them.
Nkeng’s baby was due on Sept. 8. When the baby still hadn’t arrived 10 days later, Akoda told her to meet him at the hospital. There, he induced labor. Nkeng said he did not tell her what to expect and gave her no guidance on how long the process might last.
At the end of two days of labor, Akoda performed a cesarean section. Her son was 9 pounds, 14 ounces at birth, almost three pounds heavier than her daughter had been.
“I lost a lot of blood. Was it 2 or 3 pints of blood? They had to stop it at some point because my body couldn’t take it,” Nkeng said. “I was just gushing it out.”
Nkeng was at the hospital for three days after the C-section, but she was still losing a lot of blood. Still, she said, Akoda ordered her discharge.
Family members refused to take her to her own house, and instead got her to a relative’s where she could be monitored. There she continued to bleed heavily. “Where’s my son? Don’t let him see me die. Move him away from me,” she remembers telling her aunt before passing out.
Her family called an ambulance, which took her back to the hospital she had just left. She waited in the emergency room for Akoda to come back and examine her. He determined she had a blot clot and, without giving her warning, she said, sent his fist inside her to remove it.
After he removed the clot, Akoda told her she should be grateful, that he’d saved her life — and that she wouldn’t be able to have children for three years.
According to her medical records, Nkeng spent four days in intensive care before being transferred to another section of the hospital for another six days before she could go home.
After her release, she returned to the clinic and demanded Akoda be fired.
“What I experienced at the hospital almost cost me my life,” she said.
“This is gonna be with me forever and ever.”
Nkeng was one of the last patients Akoda saw while still working out of Chaudry’s office. Her son was born in September 2014. Later that year, Chaudry fired him. He later said in a deposition that the cause for the termination was Akoda’s tendency to cancel patient appointments so that he could leave work early, not his performance as a doctor.
After leaving Chaudry’s office, Akoda started his own practice in College Park, Md. Following a federal investigation, he was arrested in June 2016.
Howard University, which declined comment for this story, has acknowledged that it admitted Akoda to its residency program; it did so on the basis of his license from the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates. Chaudry, who also declined to comment, acknowledged in a deposition that he never reviewed Akoda’s certification documents.
Despite those oversights, Akoda never would have been able to see patients on his own had he not been permitted to work at Prince George’s Hospital Center.
At Prince George’s, and at most U.S. hospitals, the hiring process typically involves a rigorous application process. A doctor must submit all personal documentation, an application including letters of recommendation, and statements of purpose. That information is then submitted to a series of committees for approval: one that checks credentials, one made up of medical executives, and finally a board of directors.
Akoda’s application to work at Prince George’s included fraudulent letters of recommendation, and he used his fraudulent Social Security card and accompanying documents, according to court documents. The application went through several layers of gatekeepers without a problem.
Dimensions, the private nonprofit that now operates the hospital, has argued in court documents that, despite Akoda’s fraud, he was licensed to practice medicine during the time he was employed at Prince George’s. Those documents state the he performed satisfactorily on OB-GYN exams and that Howard University named him “resident of the year.” Dimensions says he was, in fact, a doctor, even if his name was not Dr. Akoda.
“As Shakespeare wrote over 400 years ago, ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet,’” Dimensions wrote in a motion to dismiss the case.
After Akoda’s conviction, Sylvia Nkeng became pregnant again and decided to switch practices. Tina Young, fearful of becoming pregnant again, began taking birth control for the first time in her life, even though she had always wanted 10 children. Monique Riggins, a plaintiff named in the class-action suit, said she still feels physical pain from her delivery more than three years ago.
Yvette Hansberry also got pregnant again. She, too, immediately switched doctors offices. She drove to a doctor in Virginia whose credentials she looked up online and verified in person.
Her daughter Zoey’s remains are kept inside the teddy bear on the mantel.
“That’s your sister,” Hansberry tells her second daughter, Sky, who is 2 years old.
If Zoey’s bear falls off the mantel — as it does sometimes in a breeze, or when its head gets far too heavy to sit up anymore — Sky instructs her mother and grandmother to return it.
On a recent day, Hansberry brought her hands to her face as she remembered her first pregnancy. Her breath caught for a moment in the back of her throat, her eyes welling with tears.
“That was my first child. She’s now sitting on my fireplace in an urn because I had to have her cremated,” she said.
“I trusted him,” she said. “I didn’t think to ask to see his credentials.”